All posts by Dave Laird

Everyone, All Over, Spouting Like Whales

 

Remember this from my first post?:

“So as this book progresses, a time does come, perhaps a little later than you’d like, where this generous relenting begins. There is an illuminating breakthrough moment. And you’ll know it when you see it. Don’t go looking for it though; it will find you. Once you happen upon it, you’ll probably start flipping back to fit all the pieces together, derailing your reading progress for a bit. That’s okay. You should totally do it. I did.”

And so, I’m interested to hear your experiences from this week, because finally, a quarter way through the book, we’re given the Rosetta Stone on page 223, the Chronology of Organization of North American Nations’ Revenue-Enhancing Subsidized Time™, By Year. Everything makes sense now, yes? We now know that the novel’s opening scene with Hal in the Deans interview is the last chronological thing we’ve seen so far, and that Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment in which most of the action we’ve seen so far precedes it. We’re now trying to put together what actually happens to Hal in that scene. Was it the incredibly potent DMZ that Pemulis procured in this week’s reading? The mould Hal ingested in the page 10-11 flashback? Something else we haven’t encountered yet? Anyway, things are easier from this point on. I echo Jenny’s observation from the roundtable on Saturday that if you’ve made it this far, you should be in good shape to finish. So congratulations.

I unfortunately had to miss the video discussion last Saturday, but Mark’s question about humor in the book would have elicited this from me: the puking story on 233 with the high-class food and the ipecac’d brandy, “everyone, all over, spouting like whales. I’d heard the term projectile vomiting but I never thought that I—you could aim, the pressure was such that you could aim.” Plus also the puking field pathologist on 253, the puking Peemster on 262, and J.O.I. and Joelle in Toronto stopping cabs mid-ride to evacuate their stomachs on 297.

People who know me well will tell you that the thing that makes me lose it the most, comically, is violent vomiting. Little Britain’s jam-tasting sketch, Tracy Jordan’s Oprah Winfrey cooking show from 30 Rock, the opening scene of Pitch Perfect, this new Ghostbusters trailer I just saw today, and the Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life Mr. Creosote scene, et al., send me into an absolute ecstasy of mirth. (As an aside, I used the restaurant scene from Wallace’s The Broom of the System in my English 11 class a few years ago, wherein Norman Bombardini orders nine steaks. One of the assignment options I gave was for students to create mock social media profiles for him, and some actually made real Facebook accounts for him, using the image of Mr. Creosote, so check those out). And so I’m talking like doubled-over, sucking for oxygen, tears-streaming type mirth. The time I first watched Pitch Perfect, for example, I went back to that scene after it was over and took a picture of the screen with my phone, then laid in bed crying and crying for about twenty minutes that night looking at the photo.

Yes, I’m pretty sophisticated.

Another highlight for me from the roundtable conversation was the discussion of reading this book in public. This was really apt for me, as I recently travelled with my wife Rachel and best friend Nathan to Nicaragua, who were both reading it in the airports and on the flights on the way down. I opted to read it on an iPad on the trip, taking a more covert approach like Ryan talked about. Nothing more embarrassing than three Nucksters sitting in public view, all reading the same brick.

Probably my favorite part of the Saturday conversation was Corrie’s unexpected (for technical audio reasons) interjection of “Mario!” when Mark asked who the favorite characters were, namely because that’s exactly how I would have responded to that prompt from Mark too. Mario slays me, and like Hal notes at one point, for me “Mario floats” (316). I actually wrote an entire chapter of my thesis recently that’s entirely about Mario. The proposal I just submitted for the 2016 Wallace Conference is also a reflection on Mario’s role in the novel. Keep an eye on Mario.

Other highlights from the book for me this week included yet another misconception about Canadians, that we don’t know the true street value of items (as with Pemulis and the Antitoi brothers and the DMZ, “and like fucking Nucksters about almost anything they had no idea what they were in possession of was worth” (215-6)), Winston Churchill’s coining of the “hideously and improbably deformed” phrase (226), the Convexity/Concavity debate at Molly Notkin’s party (234), and mentions of the muddy BC apple juice (228), which I know well.

You gotta try this stuff; it’s unreal.

Passing Out Pieces

Alright, so this week, the puzzle from my intro post’s analogy begins to get a bit clearer, storylines and characters coming into focus as Wallace passes us more recurring pieces of the giant picture.

One of the funnier ones we get in this section is Dwayne “Doony” R. Glynn’s slapstick but genuinely horrifying—in terms of the pain described—insurance claim excerpt involving the bricks and pulleys. Did you notice that he makes a brief appearance at Ennet House in Tiny Ewell’s catalogue of tattoos? His are the cut-along-the-dotted-line tattoos around his neck and head removal instructions on his scalp, vestigial mistakes from the days of his skinhead youth, we’re told. These are the kinds of vanishingly minute connections the book rewards. Certainly not integral to the plot (at least at this point), but a fun moment of correlation.

Another—literally—heartbreaking connection we’re given is ‘Helen’ Steeply’s article on the woman whose purse-ensconced prosthetic heart is nabbed on the street by “a transvestite purse snatcher, a drug addict…bizarrely outfitted in a strapless cocktail dress, spike heels, tattered feather boa, and auburn wig.” Sound familiar? Could this be Poor Tony from last week’s wildly disturbing account of the Hotshot, in which Tony stuffs “the feather snake” down C’s throat to stifle his death screams from Boston’s finest, as his map is “elemonaded” by the Drano-laced dope? I believe so.

We get a comprehensive list of Canadian separatists groups (awesome), some of which I touched on last week. About half of these are real groups. All of them are at least based on real Canadian historical figures.

We’re handed one of the funniest scenes in the book (for me), of Michael Pemulis AKA The Peemster—about whom I mentioned on Episode 9 of The Great Concavity that I literally cannot repress a physical smile whenever his name appears or is mentioned—passing out clean urine to ETA players from an “antique vendor’s tub for ballpark wieners…hands free to make change,” calling out “Urine trouble? Urine luck!” whilst wearing a paper vendor’s hat. His trust of Mario’s filmic documentation of his fraudulent behavior absolutely kills me, that he’s positive no one will ever see the footage, that Mario will blur faces if asked, which he loves doing. This cavalier attitude seems unlikely given Mike’s level of paranoia w/r/t drug dealing, who fears “the dealer’s Brutus, the potential eater of cheese, the rat,” replying to requests over the phone with an oddly lilting Southern-belle dialect that also cracks me up to no end. You can just see him looking both ways before he starts each sentence, every time.

The legacy of the Incandenza men’s paternal traumas becomes clearer as well, in the 1960 scene in Tucson AZ, of an impossibly geeky ten-year-old James Incandenza getting emotionally and verbally abused by his own father, illuminating the genesis of many of Hal and Orin’s communication issues. The professional conversationalist scene from Week 1 now makes more sense.

I absolutely adore the Tennis and the Feral Prodigy section. This was one of the main moments of the book that goaded me into taking up the sport (of which I’ve been an avid player and watcher since reading Jest), despite my too-cool-for-sports mentality as a lifelong skateboarder. (Here’s some very dated and mildly embarrassing [fashion-wise] evidence).

We get a very strange new character in the radio-host Madame Psychosis (though we’ve seen her briefly before in endnote 24—see p.991), and a glimpse into my favorite character Mario’s (yes, even more than Pemulis) listening habits—which are grin-inducing to no end—“sitting right up close to one of the speakers with his head cocked dog-like, listening, staring into that special pocket of near-middle distance reserved for the serious listener.” Note well that the Great Concavity is timeless. Another several misconceptions about Canadians arrives in this section (I’ve literally started making a list), around Avril’s gustatory and digestive habits, that she’s unable to eat dinner before 10:30 PM and that “Cultured Canadians tend to think vertical digestion makes the mind unkeen.” Literally no one I know thinks this. Also that Canadians are not particularly great gardeners (it’s not that cold everywhere in Canada all of the time).

And finally, we’re given a great deal of largely unpleasant detail about what you find out about humanity whilst living in a recovery house. It’s probably worth mentioning here that Wallace’s descriptions are so specific and numerous because he himself spent time in a Boston detox centre, Granada House. My favorite of these is probably that Boston males favor the term “Unit” above all others to refer to the masculine sex-organ, and that they immaturely snicker at Units 1-7 that share property with Ennet House.

I hope the assembling was enjoyable for you this week.

Here’s a song for you, just for fun—because I think songs are fun—that has no relation to Infinite Jest, but fits the puzzle analogy’s theme:

Mac Demarco – Passing Out Pieces (*video is mislabeled with “the” in the title)

“The Sun is a Hammer” and Other Hot Things

Granada and León, Nicaragua are where I’ve been reading Jest from this week. Corrie (with her keen interest in recurring patterns) noted to me that it’d therefore be apt to write my post about sweat, humidity, perspiration, heat, and all the related discomforts. Don’t get me wrong, this is a vacation and I’m happy for the respite from the dismal Canadian winter, but the phrase from Orin’s opening scene, “The sun is a hammer,” is pretty right-on here. For me, Infinite Winter is presently Infinite Summer. I can relate to those Australians in the mix, who must laugh every time that most frigid of the seasons is mentioned in our branding. How Amerocentric of us.

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And so we see the blasting air conditioner in Tiny Ewell’s room, the hot night-air of Steeply and Marathe’s Tucson AZ twilight lookout, the presumably humid E.T.A. locker room and sauna and mention of “three-set sweat” that only lemon Pledge can withstand, U.S.S. Millicent Kent’s hand that’s “large and hot and at the level of sogginess of a bathmat that’s been used several times in a row in quick succession,” Lyle the fitness guru’s literal living off the sweat of others (“the fluids and salts and fatty acids” from a “good hot shellac of sweat”), the “hot air blowergrate” of Poor Tony and his fellow drug users behind the library at “Copley Squar” (sic), Orin’s “snug and toasty” 90+ degree (“Fahrenheit I’m assuming”) Phoenix AZ heat where “the air has that spilled-fuel shimmer to it” and “bacon-caliber sizzling pavement,” and c. So I can totally Identify here in like 97 degree, humid-ass Nicaragua.

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On a colder note, one way I feel uniquely equipped to be a guide for Infinite Winter is to illuminate some of the Canadian references this book poses, assuming that a large percentage of participants here are non-Canadian. In our section this week, we’ve seen something about (1) Canadians farting by lifting one leg (which Mark comically pointed out in his post on Monday), (2) the F.L.Q. terrorist organization expanded upon in endnote 47, and (3) Separatism.

So let me illuminate a bit.

(1) Farting: I don’t happen to know if this flatulent gesture is particularly Canadian, and it’s certainly not universal among Canadians I know. Sure, I’ve seen my countrymen (probably even myself on occasion) enact this particular move at times, but it’s not the characterizing norm. So I’m not sure what Wallace’s experience with Canadians was specifically like, but it sounds gross.

(2) The F.L.Q.: In the 1960s and early 1970s, the F.L.Q. operated as a fairly extremist separatist organization (I’m a History major and senior high Social Studies teacher is how I know this), bent on seeing Québec secede from Canada to form its own independent state. It used violent means to gets its message across, the boiling point of which was the October Crisis of (you guessed it) October 1970, in which a Canadian cabinet member and a British diplomat were kidnapped and the Canadian strangled and dumped in the bush. This caused the notoriously liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to declare martial law to keep Montreal’s citizens safe, leading to a (Canadian-) famous doorstop interview that ends with a pretty bold statement most Canadians could probably rap with you about. Which brings me to my next point.

(3) Separatism: On page 137, we get the following exchange between Hal and Orin: “‘Kidding aside for a second. What all do you know about Separatism?’ Hal stopped for a moment. ‘You mean in Canada?’ ‘Is there any other kind?’” So as you might have heard (and the hotel manager of our current spot in Nicaragua certainly has, mentioning this very issue earlier today, totally unprompted, when talking about people from Montréal), Québec has a history of wanting to eliminate itself from Canada’s map. Literally.

In 1995, Québec’s citizens voted in a referendum to secede from Canada, and the results were nuts. 49.4% of voters wanted out, while 50.6% desired the status quo. So it was super close. I’m willing to bet that the 1996 Infinite Jest would look a fair bit different in the Marathe and A.F.R. sections if 1.3% of Québecers had voted differently in that plebiscite. I mean, there would still be feral hamsters and bewildering health issues north of the Convexity, but Québec would have had to deal on its own, sans Canadian intervention.

So as we roll into Week 3 of Infinite Winter, vote Yes to Hanging In and continuing on.

Into the Fray

Okay, so we’re definitely all doing this thing, yeah? Cool.

So now that all the preparatory hype and fanfare have cooled off and we’re in the textual trenches, who needs a drink?

It’s a hard assignment to write a guiding post about the first 63ish pages of Infinite Jest, as the level of guidance it really requires entails a gross amount of spoilage. We’ve been served a collection of disparate vignettes so far, from Hal’s psychic meltdown or whatever that is, to a flashback about mold ingestion, a dude called Erdedy losing his mind while trying not to lose his mind while waiting for weed, a weird psychiatric role-play between Hal and his dad, a nameless medical attaché going catatonic watching some unmarked cartridge, an eyebrow-raising Ebonics passage that comes off in 2016 as perhaps being racially distasteful (not that the year makes any difference [there’s a great BBC The Office bit about this]), a pretty good joke about a dyslexic insomniac agnostic, a remarkably fraught NFL kicker, another big thing about weed (this time in subterranean tunnels), another drug addict named Don Gately accidentally murdering a Canadian and probing himself anally with the toothbrushes of B&E victims, a sick kid named Jim who plays tennis, some very specific stuff about Canada (like, more than most of us would probably care to know [I say this as a Canadian]), and finally to some unsettling dreams about tennis and evil. And yes, that was a long sentence, but you’re conditioned to those now, I would imagine.

I listened the Strange Projections podcast episode “Grinding It Out” this week about their experience reading the first quarter of Infinite Jest, and it reveals a certain kind of misanthropic nature to the novel, that it appears to be deliberately unpleasant to read in various extended sections. I see their point, and found their exposition quite humorous, even if I am one of those “fuckers over at InfiniteWinter.org,” haha.

My experience of Jest isn’t quite as negative as Lou and Adam’s, but I appreciate that the first read of this opening section is pretty disjointed and maybe even a little unfriendly. I’m sure we’ve all heard Wallace’s comments to Larry McCaffery that this is somewhat intentional, that serious art requires hard work to “access its pleasures,” but the extent of the difficulty here, according to Lou and Adam, is that Wallace wants to beat the readers into submission, to murder them, to have them die. I wouldn’t go this far, but I appreciate the comedic hyperbole of their claims.

At this point, we know that some of these things in Jest’s opening pages are connected. We know there are three brothers with varying levels of psychic and physical challenges, that weed and addiction appear to be a major themes, and that a trailer-dwelling, snake-handling drug dealer may be of some importance.

I wish you way more than luck in Week 2, and leave you with this parting gift named for the opening chapter you read this past week:

The Generous Relenting

To avoid spoilers, the guides will comment on each week’s reading in the week that follows. We’ll use this first week to introduce ourselves and hope you’ll do the same in the comments.

infinite-jest-circle

When you pick up Infinite Jest you’re truly holding a puzzle. One of those highly complex jigsaw puzzles with thousands of tiny pieces. Maybe the best analogue is that infamous 17×6 ft, 32,000 piece one. Opening to Jest’s first page is akin to lifting the lid off the box, revealing an absolute chaos of displaced shapes and diasporic colors. The box doesn’t even have the image of what the completed puzzle looks like, so you’re up the creek in terms of visual cues for assembly.

And the method for constructing this puzzle will not be traditional. Rather than searching for corners, edges, and color themes, organizing them in various sensical ways, a highly-intelligent, possibly malevolent stranger (with a weirdly specific knowledge of pharmaceutical nomenclature) will hand you random pieces, one at a time, that seem to bear no relation to one another. These will stack up and your sense of despair will swell as you continually fail to see a pattern or any semblance of relational order between them. Prepare to be confused for a while.

This is likely why many people abandon the book within the first couple hundred pages. It has a high barrier to entry, and is constructed in such a way as to weed out uncommitted readers. It’s like one of those awful college or university English profs who presents a horrifying course workload on the first day of class, but then relents generously as the course progresses, laughing at how they intentionally scared Science students away on the first day. You will eventually come to be in on the joke, able to laugh at it with the rest of the class.

So as this book progresses, a time does come, perhaps a little later than you’d like, where this generous relenting begins. There is an illuminating breakthrough moment. And you’ll know it when you see it. Don’t go looking for it though; it will find you. Once you happen upon it, you’ll probably start flipping back to fit all the pieces together, derailing your reading progress for a bit. That’s okay. You should totally do it. I did.

Once you’re finally done the puzzle and can see the whole picture in its fully assembled glory, there will probably still be areas you’re unsure about, that resemble strange, surrealist art. This is postmodern fiction. But now you know the whole picture, and are fully equipped to start the whole thing over again, appreciating the shape and color of each seemingly random piece from the outset.

I first finished the puzzle of Infinite Jest in 2008, and haven’t shaken its effects/affects since. In a strange way, it’s become part of my identity, of how I think about and experience humanity and the world, in all of its paradoxical abjection and glory. I sometimes even think that I might not be able to be fully understood by another person unless they’ve also read this book. I know that sounds pretentious and exclusive, hyperbolic even (and maybe it is), but I’d be willing to bet that other readers of Jest might be able to Identify.

There’s just a strange and magical camaraderie between its readers that no other novel achieves, in my experience. The shared knowledge of Hal and the Incandenzas, Don Gately and the P.G.O.A.T., of Eschaton, NoCoat Inc. LinguaScrapers, Blood Sister: One Tough Nun, the Statue of Liberty in an adult diaper, and the samizdat feels like the doctrine of something approximating an ancient and clandestine gnostic sect.

There’s a lot about loneliness in this book, and a lot about community as well. We’ll typically read the book alone, atomized. Reading is essentially a lonely enterprise in one sense. But Infinite Winter emphasizes that Infinite Jest is so much about coming together as well, and provides a practical site for that premise. In this way, the project seems to thematically embody Jest’s major concerns, and I think this will be a nourishing thing.